Monday, February 13, 2017

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra

Published February 2017. Title captures the key point.
Here’s an idea for a history professor who teaches a class in European Thought from the Age of Enlightenment to the advent of the First World War. You give this question as the take-home exam:

Identify a trend in European thought that spread throughout the continent and beyond that has a connection to events in the contemporary world. Identify the trend and explain how this trend relates to significant contemporary events.

I imagine that something like this popped into the head of Pankaj Mishra, and the Age of Anger is his answer to this challenge. Our imaginary professor need not look further than this brilliant book to find an “A” answer.

In this book, Mishra looks at terrorism, rising popular frustrations, and the shift toward populist politics, ardent nationalism, and autocratic rulers in the contemporary world. In Mishra’s book, we see connections between Islamic terrorists, Hindu nationalists, Brexit, and Trump voters. Each group manifests a fundamental rebellion against the social and economic—and therefore political—strictures of modernity and its most forceful representative, global capitalism. Others have identified these contemporary connections, but Mishra reaches back to the Enlightenment in 18th century France to see how the foremost nation of the age understood modernity and how it responded to the changes modernity imposed upon individuals and societies. Mishra focuses on the leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, and its leading critic, Rousseau. European politics after 1789 can be viewed as a continuation of the battles of the French Revolution, and in the same way, European social and political thought can be seen as a continuation of the contending viewpoints of Rousseau and Voltaire.

Voltaire: more famous at the beginning
Rousseau: greater influence, larger image

Mishra traces the history of Rousseau’s thought as it emigrated to Germany and captured the attention of Herder and the Romantic movement. Germany was late to industrial development and late to nationhood, but it made up for its lost time with a vengeance. Mishra also charts the course of Rousseau’s thought and its attendant nationalism into Italy, which also came late to statehood and only falteringly to industrial capitalism.  And Mishra looks at Russia, its nationhood achieved, but sorely lagging in the cultural and economic markers of modernity. In each nation, throughout Europe (with Great Britain a significant outlier), the demands of modernity and modern industrial capitalism tore the social fabric and created a backlash among those unable to realize the prizes offered by capitalism. In short, a backlash occurred beginning with the French Revolution and continuing through the First World War to now. While the working class struggled for basic living conditions, the intellectual class struggled with the indignities and frustrations that this system built upon mimetic desire created. Mishra examines the work of a variety of continental thinkers in this period, Herder, Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin (anarchist), Mazzini (Italian nationalist), Dostoevsky, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche, to name some of the most prominent writers who addressed these issues. Also, Mishra discusses the spread of these lines of thought through other parts of the world, including Islamic civilization, India, and China, which, in seeking to throw off the yoke of Western imperialism, adopted and modified Western thinking both modern and anti-modern.

But don’t think that this is merely an account of abstract thinkers. Mishra’s book also recounts the violence spawned by these thinkers and others like them. From the French Revolution to the Revolutions of 1848 to the anarchist bombings and assassinations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, violence plagued Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world. And while the two world wars and the cold war placed a damper on much of this ferment, it erupted again after the end of the Cold War. Whether large scale killings like those in Bosnia, or acts of terrorism like the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the World Trade Center, in Mishra’s account, it’s all of a single cloth. Indeed, the physical proximity of Timothy McVeigh, U.S. Army veteran, and Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack (1993), represents the similarity of their characteristics. Yousef claimed the mantle of Islam, and McVeigh claimed no religion other than “science,” but both held a deep-seated grievance against the existing order.

The common bond of this tale of violence is ressentiment, frustration, powerlessness, and humiliation. These feelings provide the motivation for both the angry words and the violent deeds that seek to destroy the system, to remake the world. Note that as I write this, a self-proclaimed “Leninist” who want to bring down the system, Stephen Bannon, sits at the right hand of our demagogic president. I fear it events could become uglier more quickly than we can imagine.

Mishra is a native of India and resides currently in London. He is conversant in both worlds. In An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, which I read some years ago, I noted how well he moved between the Buddhist tradition and the Western tradition. His mastery of the material of the “exam question” that he gave in himself in Age of Anger is also exemplary. (He provides a thorough bibliographical essay to show where he has been in this research. It’s impressive.)

More than any other source dealing with the Age of Trump, I found Mishra’s account provides the most useful guide because it reaches back in time and around the globe. I agree with Mishra that economic turmoil and uncertainty, threats such as climate change (which some deny but still no doubt fear), and the ongoing frustrations and humiliations perceived by far too many have created our volatile political climate. Like me, he looks around the world and sees millions and millions of young men [sic] who are encountering frustrated expectations as economic growth inevitably slows and thereby denying opportunities to climb the latter of status and success. Alas, Mishra doesn’t have an answer for all of this. I suspect, like me, that he doesn’t want to crush the benefits of modernity to ameliorate its detriments. But somehow, we have to find our way beyond our current fix, or we will suffer much worse to come. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 2 Human Destiny by Reinhold Niebuhr

He's looking to us to carry the torch

Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Destiny (vol.2). Human destiny seems an almost absurdly immense topic, but Niebuhr brings formidable learning and perspective to his self-imposed task. When he wrote and delivered these Gifford Lectures in1939, the Second World War loomed on the horizon. Soon Nazi armies would run rampant through Europe. Hitler and Stalin had entered into a pact that allowed for the division of spoils in Eastern Europe. Western Civilization and the values that it had cultivated for centuries were under attack. In this half of the project, Niebuhr directs us to think profoundly about our heritage. Of course, thinking and lecturing don’t win wars, but stating and examining our ideas and ideals help us to understand and define ourselves and to discover what we value. This Niebuhr does magnificently. 

Mining Christian tradition
Niebuhr began his career at a Lutheran parish in Detroit after completing divinity school at Yale. In Detroit, he experienced the injustices and problems of working people, and these experiences shaped his thoughts and attitudes about social justice and politics. He also mined the Western tradition of Christian and secular thought. This book (and its predecessor) reveal an impressive understanding of the Christian traditions. In this book, like all of his works, he deploys his knowledge of the Biblical tradition. But he also understands and explicates Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, sectarian, mystical, and (to a lesser extent) Orthodox positions on issues like sanctification, justification, grace, and so on. One may think that this sounds like a rather dry history of various Christian doctrines that most Christians, not to mention non-Christians, would find dull and irrelevant. To the contrary, Niebuhr brings these issues and their implications to life.

In all of Niebuhr’s writings, you find a persistent endeavor to recognize and grasp the implications arising from the paradoxes of human existence. Salvation by works or by faith? A transcendent or an immanent God? Pride or sensuality as the foundation of sin? Deference to government or defiance? For each set of issues, some of which have caused the greatest divisions—including torture and warfare—are carefully exposed, explicated, and critiqued. Niebuhr provides no easy answers; no “do this, do that” recipes. Instead, he provides insights into the human predicament.

Someone might ask why they should spend time reading a now long-dead (1971) 20th century American theologian, especially if one is not a Christian.  The answer is that Niebuhr provides abiding perspectives on the human condition, into our attempts at political life, achieving justice, dealing with pride and sensuality, and understanding international relations—to list some of this most prominent themes. For each great challenge that he addresses, he provides his reader with observations that capture the paradoxes and folly of human action. In this time of growing uncertainty and fear, Niebuhr, along with Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, writers from my grandparents’ generation, provide wisdom so sorely needed now.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Open Letter to Sen. Grassley re Supreme Court Vacancy

3 February 2017

Senator Charles E. Grassley
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510-1501

Dear Senator Grassley,

We must now return to the vacancy on the Supreme Court that you and your Republican colleagues decided to leave vacant last year. President Trump has nominated a man with impressive qualifications, and yet the Democrats should move to block the nomination by a filibuster. The problem is that you have to defend the legitimacy of Judge Gorsuch’s nomination, not his qualifications. This is a problem for you and your Republican colleagues, but I have a way out I will suggest in this letter. But first, we have to examine how you arrived at this juncture where the Democrats would threaten the use of the anti-democratic device of the filibuster. They aren't usually inclined to play so roughly. They even suffered its use (and abuse) by Republicans when you were in the minority. What’s the problem?

The problem arises from the decision of you, Senator McConnell, and your Republican colleagues to refuse hold hearings on the nomination of Judge Garland (as you have said of him, an extremely well-qualified jurist). You attempted to justify this dereliction of your constitutionally-mandated duty by arguing that the matter should be left until after the election. Senator McConnell argued that the American people should “have a voice” in the selection of the next justice, and Senator Kelly Ayotte said “Americans deserve an opportunity to weigh in” on the matter.” Of course, all of this runs contrary to the original intent of the Constitution, a sad commentary on the value of originalism and an ironic approach to filling the seat of originalism’s great proponent, Justice Scalia.

The people “spoke” (by their ballots), and most of them didn’t speak in favor of Mr. Trump. In fact, only 46% voted for Mr. Trump, and he finished second in the balloting, losing by almost 3 million votes. The legitimacy of his election was further undermined by our knowledge that foreign agents (Russian) stole emails and arranged their release to aid his election. (When I was a Republican, Republican candidates didn’t have the support of Russian leaders. My, how times have changed!) And, of course, the unprecedented entry of the FBI into the election also undermines President Trump’s legitimacy. (It’s a good thing folks on the left aren’t as given to conspiracy theories as those on the right, isn’t it?) So, the American people—and most voters—despite these foreign and unprecedented influences, did not vote for Trump. Therefore, according to the logic of your party, we should wait until after the next election to fill this vacancy. Then, we hope, you’ll have a legitimate mandate from “the people.” You had an unquestionably legitimate and popular (and popularly-elected) president to fill the post, and now you have this mess. Mind you, I think that all of this is nuts, contrary to the intention of the Constitution—which worked to isolate judges from the political process—but I’m trying to think within the framework your party established.

You can argue (although it didn’t bother you before) that the Supreme Court needs the full nine members. But as your colleague Senator Cruz noted, “There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices,” as he expressed his willingness to leave Justice Scalia’s seat vacant, presumably indefinitely if Ms. Clinton had been elected. Senator McCain stated this fall “I would much rather have eight Supreme Court justices than a justice who is liberal,” so he, too, expressed his willingness to live with eight. And Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) went further: “If Hillary Clinton becomes president, I am going to do everything I can do to make sure four years from now, we still got an opening on the Supreme Court.” Thus, since the referendum-like idea didn’t work out, the Senate could just leave the seat empty. “So, sue me!”, you can respond, and with all of the court vacancies that you left vacant from the Obama years, the backlog of cases will probably prevent the matter from reaching the eight-person court for years. Perhaps not such a bad strategy for you.

But you and Senator McConnell—perhaps intuiting that Mr. Trump would garner just enough votes to carry the Electoral College—can argue that you just wanted to wait for the next president to make the appointment, and we have new, lawful president, albeit one of doubtful legitimacy. And he’s made perhaps his most competent nomination yet to a high post. But the Democrats don’t like this nomination. Some of them won’t vote for Judge Gorsuch because they fear that he’ll add just another pro-big business, anti-government, and anti-choice voice on the court. They are a minority. But more importantly, others recognize that your dereliction of duty in ignoring Judge Garland’s nomination was changing the game in a naked grab for power and that, this requires retaliation. Allowing cheaters to escape unpunished sets dangerous precedents. The Democrats think that changing the rules of the game during the game is dirty pool; in a word, cheating. I agree; in fact, I believe that it’s downright un-American. (Aren’t you glad now that the House did away with that committee?)

So, if—as they should—the Democrats filibuster the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, what should you do? “End the filibuster!” I imagine you’ll say (less unnerving the President Trump’s “use the nuclear option!” Thank you.) I have to admit that I’ve called for an end to the filibuster as an anti-democratic practice with no constitutional justification. Both parties have abused this process, although the Republican Party has once again taken the lead in making Congress an ineffective and lowly-regarded institution through its use of the filibuster.  And not wanting to be a hypocrite (I’m not a politician) and not wanting to suffer the cognitive dissonance of self-contradiction, I have to respond. And I respond that the filibuster should be ended—just not yet. (St. Augustine pioneered this move.) Its end should come as a part of a grand bargain.

Here’s the grand bargain. You and Senator McConnell go to President Trump and report that the Gorsuch nomination cannot come up for a vote because of a filibuster. You could exercise the “nuclear option,” says President Trump, but the filibuster has been a very useful tool for Republicans, and you don’t want to lose it. "We’ll be in the minority again, perhaps soon". (I’m rooting for 2018 myself.) Now the light will go off in each of your heads at the same time: we could change the rules now, and then change them back later! But someone might have a twinge of conscience —I hope it’s you—it certainly won’t be President Trump—a pained thought of being recognized as a cheater, and the realization of the loss of an opportunity to put principle above party in the interest of the nation. You demur. Instead, you offer this.  

“I’ve spoken with Senator Schumer (the minority leader) and he will agree to this plan: You will withdraw the nomination of Judge Gorsuch (don’t tell him he’s fired, that’s not it). You nominate Judge Garland. I will hold a hearing on his nomination, and we will vote on it. The vote will be on whether he’s qualified to sit on the court. No party will use the filibuster; in fact, for the good of the Senate and as a matter of democratic integrity, we’ll end it. Then, at the next vacancy, you can once again nominate Judge Gorsuch. We will hold hearings and vote on his nomination. The vote will be on whether he’s qualified to sit on the court. No filibuster.” You’ll conclude, “Mr. President, this is a win-win outcome.” He’ll respond, “What the hell is that?”, but pay no heed.

There you have it. Share this with your colleagues. It’s a great plan.  

Steve Greenleaf,
Your Constituent